Slowly but surely our legislative leadership is nibbling away at the very foundation of how Alabama government has worked for nearly 200 years. Like this great country itself, Alabama is a democracy.
By definition, democracy is “a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them.” Abraham Lincoln stated it well in his 272-word Gettysburg Address when he ended his remarks with “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
However, some of our leaders prefer an oligarchy where power is held by a small number of individuals.
The latest example of this mindset is the statement made recently by Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh about his interest in a bill to move from an elected State Board of Education to an appointed board. Marsh’s remarks came in response to the failure of the state board to select members for a charter school commission at the meeting May 13.
According to the Decatur Daily, Marsh said, “The board acted in an irresponsible manner not appointing those to the charter commission. I’m told that they are going to convene next week to do that, and I would advise them to do so.”
Four members of the seven-member board said that they did not feel they had enough information about nominees to make informed decisions and that they did not have adequate time for due diligence. “Irresponsible,” that the majority of this body wants to be more deliberative in the process and still meet the legislatively mandated deadline of June 1?
Or is irresponsibility threatening a duly elected body with, “I would advise them to do so?”
The Legislature has already trampled democracy this session when they created an appointed board to govern the two-year college system, stripping this duty from the elected board. Senator Marsh might do some homework before issuing threats. He needs to ask his chief of staff, the one he gave a 38 percent raise last year, to dig out a copy of Alabama Constitutional Amendment 284, ratified Dec. 16, 1969. The amendment voted on by the people of Alabama to discontinue having an appointed state board and replace it with one “which shall be elected.”
The good senator might even go back to 2014 and look at some numbers. There are eight elected state school board members (one seat is currently waiting to be filled by an appointment by the governor). Obviously one of these seats has far more constituents than a senator does since there are 35 senators. Last year a new state board member was elected from Calhoun County, which is also Senator Mash’s home county. Cynthia McCarty got 35,505 votes in the Republican primary. Primary turnout is always substantially less than in general elections. Still, she got more than twice as many votes as Marsh did in his general election (17,646).
Translation — Senator Marsh wants to disenfranchise the 35,505 voters who chose Dr. McCarty, as well as the 29,933 who voted for board member Betty Peters and the 25,188 who voted for member Mary Scott Hunter. He apparently thinks he and a handful of his cronies know more about running the state than the folks who pave our roads, till our crops, teach our children and care for our sick.
There is a story about an old woman who baked a pie and stuck it on the windowsill to cool. When she came by later she saw that someone had taken a bite of the pie. “Well, it was only one bite,” she shrugged, and went on her way. She returned later and noticed there were now two bites of pie missing. Again she shrugged, “Well it was only two bites.” And you know the rest of the story. By the end of the day the entire pie had been eaten by passersby.
What is going on in Montgomery is much, much bigger than the state school board. It is all about a mindset that believes the public will not care about how many bites are gone. It’s about a mindset that thinks Abraham Lincoln was wrong about “of the people, by the people, for the people.” It’s about a mindset that believes in intimidation instead of compromise.
Long ago as a young deacon in a Baptist church in Birmingham I sat in meetings when passions flared and faces turned red as the matter of allowing blacks to worship in our all-white congregation was debated. The standard refrain from most in the room was, “If THEY were coming here for the right reason, it would be okay.” I was bewildered that one human had the capacity to look into another’s heart and determine the “right reason.”
Yet, this is the same logic we’ve seen this legislative session as bills have been proposed that allow a business owner to deny service to someone they feel may worship the wrong god, or love the wrong person or part their hair on the wrong side or whatever trumped-up reason they find to mask discrimination. It is a logic that reeks of elitism, of looking for ways to judge others of being unworthy of being their equal and of being unworthy of going into a voting booth and being part of “of the people, by the people and for the people.”
The angst of some with the state board of education is merely a means to a greater end. This is not so much about the state school board and how it behaves, as it is about a broadening mindset that categorizes the people of Alabama into categories of “worthy” and “unworthy.”
It is about once again going down a path we’ve trod too long and too often. A path that echoes with “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.”
It’s about a mindset that betrays the goodness of the people of this state.